Singapore: The Rational Society as Technocracy

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Human beings, regrettable though it may be, are inherently vicious and have to be restrained from their viciousness.’ –  Lee Kuan Yew

In a recent post Nick Land refers to an old essay by William Gibson Disneyland with the Death Penalty (1993) about the absolute rational society of Singapore, a technocratic City State transformed under the direction of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first premier. As one commentator tells us it was Yew’s unique destiny to construct a rational society, whose guiding vision was of a state that would not simply survive, but prevail by excelling. Superior intelligence, discipline, and ingenuity would substitute for resources. He summoned his compatriots to a duty that they had never previously perceived: first to clean up their city, then to dedicate it to overcome the initial hostility of their neighbors and their own ethnic divisions by superior performance.1

One could say that Singapore is the first City based on incentives and performativity, what many might say as the Intelligent or Smart City of the future. Rational choice theory, also known as choice theory or rational action theory, advocated a framework for understanding and often formally modeling social and economic behavior. The basic premise of rational choice theory is that aggregate social behavior results from the behavior of individual actors, each of whom is making their individual decisions. The theory therefore focuses on the determinants of the individual choices. In Yew’s society performance, realism, and pragmatism bound to efficiency and optimization would be the hallmarks of the new technocracy.

The

 Singapore Garden Grove

William Gibson commenting on the efficiency and optimized instrumentalism of this society, that he would also find boring, self-policed, and closer to a Mormon like system of purity and cleanliness reports:

They’re good at this stuff. Really good. But now they propose to become something else as well; a coherent city of information, its architecture planned from the ground up. And they expect that whole highways of data will flow into and through their city. Yet they also seem to expect that this won’t affect them. And that baffles us, and perhaps it baffles the Singaporeans that it does.

Myself, I’m inclined to think that if they prove to be right, what will really be proven will be something very sad; and not about Singapore, but about our species. They will have proven it possible to flourish through the active repression of free expression. They will have proven that information does not necessarily want to be free.

Lee Kuan Yew (1923 – 2015) couldn’t have said it better, in an interview with Graham and Blackwill he’ll say,

Our way forward is to upgrade our levels of education, skills, knowledge, edge, and technology. Lifelong learning is a must for everyone in this knowledge economy, with rapidly changing technology. Those who are not well-educated and cannot retrain to be computer literate, or learn new skills and acquire new knowledge every five to ten years, will find it harder to get jobs in convenient factories, because such factories will not be economic in Singapore.

To succeed, Singapore must be a cosmopolitan center, able to attract, retain, and absorb talent from all over the world. We cannot keep the big companies out of the local league. Whether we like it or not, they are entering the region. The choice is simple. Either we have a first-class airline, a first-class shipping line, and a first-class bank, or we decline. One of the things we did in the early years was to buck the third world trend by inviting the multinational corporations, and we succeeded. Now, we must buck the third world trend to be nationalistic. We must be international in our outlook and practices. . . . Our own talent must be nurtured to come up to world standards by exposure and interaction with their foreign peers. Some of our best have been attracted away by leading American corporations. This is part of the global marketplace. (Kindle Locations 932-937).

A city that looks more like a science fiction description for the future that has suddenly found itself cast into a post-capitalist global City State, Singapore architecture rises out of the island like so many alien dreams and decopunk elaborations. So in this sense Yew’s vision is a return to the modernist vision of Internationalism. If Decopunk is sleeker and shinier than its dark twin Dieselpunk: decopunk is a chrome-plated streamlined modernism where the filth and decay in society must be expunged, then Singapore is born of a minimalism that seeks to distill the perfection of the Information Society and the New without its dark and gritty dieselpunk undertones. Singapore is the decopunk capital of the world, a site that seeks a retro-capitalism bound to an innovative technofuturism that closes itself off in a bubble-pop land, where time is nothing more than the slow dive into a controlled heaven or haven of pure rationality. A society without the dark emotive calls of the wild and irrational elements, the perfect cosmopolitan world of androids and clones. The cyborg citizen of the future will feel at home in this land without affect, a home of the ultra-rational stylization of the art deco scene where all hint of the noir has been expunged. Yet, it’s leaders are shaped by the trends of success in the open-market economies, while allowing only the best of these worlds into its own inner core. Neither a planned economy, nor a fully hierarchic ensemble, it thrives on diversity with realism, pragmatism, and imagination as core values.

In a society based on competitiveness and upper-mobility Yew relates his notions on equality:

In any given society, of the 1,000 babies born, there are so many percent near-geniuses, so many percent average, so many percent morons…. It is the near-geniuses and the above-average who ultimately decide the shape of things to come…. We want an equal society. We want to give everybody equal opportunities. But, in the back of our minds, we never deceive ourselves that two human beings are ever equal in their stamina, in their drive, in their dedication, in their innate ability.’ (KL 1102-1105).

For Yew Social Darwinism is the great decider of the fate of cities, states, and nations. “No single power, no single religion, no single ideology can conquer quer the world, or remake it in its own image. The world is too diverse. verse. Different races, cultures, religions, languages, and histories require different paths to democracy and the free market. Societies in a globalized world-interconnected by satellite, television, Internet, and travel-will influence and affect each other. What social cial system best meets the needs of a people at a particular stage in their development will be settled by social Darwinism.” (KL 1107-1110).

A man without a philosophy, more hands on and pragmatic Yew tells the interviewer “My life is not guided by philosophy or theories. I get things done and leave others to extract the principles from my successful solutions. I do not work on a theory. Instead, I ask: what will make this work? If, after a series of solutions, I find that a certain approach proach worked, then I try to find out what was the principle behind the solution. So Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, I am not guided by them…. I am interested in what works…. Presented with the difficulty or major problem or an assortment of conflicting facts, I review what alternatives I have if my proposed solution does not work. I choose a solution which offers a higher probability of success, cess, but if it fails, I have some other way. Never a dead end.” (KL 1150-1154).

He tells the interviewer that there are three keys to the successful transformation of a society: First, a determined leadership . . . two, an administration ministration which is efficient; and three, social discipline. (KL 1191-1192). His vision of progress and society is the incentive program: it is possible to create a society in which everybody is given not equal rewards, but equal opportunities, and where rewards vary not in accordance with the ownership of property, but with the worth of a person’s contribution to that society. In other words, society should make it worth people’s while to give their best to the country. This is the way to progress. (KL 1195-1201).

After years of working through various leader management systems in developing a realist and pragmatic approach for Singapore governance and commercial sectors he found Shell Oil’s system the most effective. What were the key components:

Powers of analysis; logical grasp of the facts; concentration on the basic points, extracting the principles. You score high marks in mathematics, you have got it. But that is not enough…. They must have a sense of reality of what is possible. But if you are just realistic, you become pedestrian, plebeian, you will fail. Therefore, you must be able to soar above the reality and say, “This is also possible”-a sense of imagination. (KL 1252-1254).

On what leaders fail to do: Sometimes they succumb to hubris and overconfidence, and other times they miss a transformative opportunity when it arrives. (KL 1261).

When asked about his legacy and how he would like to be remembered he states:

I never wanted to be in politics. I wanted to be a lawyer and make a good living, to be a good advocate, but I was thrown into it as a result of all these political earthquakes that took place. So I was saddled with the responsibility, and I just have to be responsible to get the place going…. All I can do is to make sure that when I leave, the institutions are good, sound, clean, efficient, and there is a government in place which knows what it has got to do and is looking for a successive government of quality. (KL 1277-1280).

In the end Singapore is the first android society, an androcratic authoritarian state that engenders optimal productivity as a base line, that encourages innovation and creativity at the cost of affective relations that might get in the way of such success. A society that controls itself through internalized normative rules that guide, shape, and navigate the possible threads of a safe co-existence in a techno-commercial and globalized space of competition. What appears to our anarchic society of impromptu raves, drugs, and rock-n-roll as boring, appears to these decopunk citizens of the new international and informational cyborg civilization of Singapore as an exit and secessionism from atavistic revenant culture of a bygone era that no longer serves the needs of the Intelligent City State. Singapore is the city of the posthuman systems, a realm of androids and clones where techno-commercialism is the order of the day, and private life is a thing of the past along with its norish outbreaks of criminality, eros and the culture of death. A city of light and silver streamlined modernism situated somewhere between ultra-modernism and utopian dreams of a revived art deco culture purged of its universalism. A rationalist society for a posthuman civilization that has left its decaying emotions at the door of subtraction for the frontiers of a machinic life that escapes the boundaries of the human analogue. A rhizomatic city that takes the time-loop seriously.

If rhizomes create smooth spaces, and cut across boundaries imposed by vertical lines of hierarchicies and order, while allowing for multiplicities, moving in many directions and connected to many other lines of thinking, acting, and being. Then Singapore is the rhizomatic city that Deleuze and Guattari in their pre-internet network theories spoke of when they  suggested that “A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.” Yet, unlike a completely horizontal society in the network sense Singapore is open to external factors in order to optimize its bets on innovation and creativity, as Yew relates:

While Singapore shares with China many of the core philosophical tenants of Confucianism, we worked over the past 40 years to establish English as our first language, and Chinese as the second. Why? Certainly not by accident or without provoking strong opposition. We did so to open ourselves to the world and allow ourselves to engage and embrace the main forces of discovery and invention and creativity that occur not only in the language but also in the mentality of English.

…The key to innovation  and technology is people. We must develop and nurture our talent so that innovation and creativity will be integral to education and training. Our education system is being revamped to nurture innovation and creativity, from kindergarten to university, and on to lifelong learning.” (KL 210-213).

William Gibson in his response to the social system he found in Singapore left him pessimistic as he states: “But perhaps I’m overly pessimistic here. I often am; it goes with the territory. (Though what could be more frightening, out here at the deep end of the 20th century, than a genuinely optimistic science fiction writer?) Perhaps Singapore’s destiny will be to become nothing more than a smug, neo-Swiss enclave of order and prosperity, amid a sea of unthinkable…weirdness.”

But then again maybe Gibson himself is too conservative in his social stance and is merely bringing the atavistic elements of his bygone era into stark relief as he peers into the future that is Singapore… and, dare we might add, our own civilization after the posthuman transition?


Addendum:

Who restrains the restrainers? asks, a commenter, wjacobr below.

My answer:

Isn’t corruption, human? Obviously an open world, even one based on rationality is imperfect while humans continue to exist. There is no god, no external force or set of rules built into the human equation: essentialism went out a while back, and with it any sense of external norms and ethics. The only rule in the posthuman society: experimentalism to the optimal peak.

Not saying I agree with it; just observing it, there is a difference. One cannot wish away what is in front of one’s face. One must deal with it as it is. To wish for something else is to turn away from the very object one is confronting, to blind oneself to its impact and become enamored in untested fictions rather than the hard kernel of reality.

Singapore is doing something right, and whatever our moral or ethical dilemmas as to whether the ends justify the means is irrelevant in its success. While we belabor human rights and broken promises the world’s new City States are emerging like dragonflies on a sea of plenty. As most of European Union flounders in chaos and anarchy, bankrupt and decaying; while America struggles to renew its own fading dreams; the cities of the East, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore among others are surpassing our once fabled capitalist utopia, and doing it without democracy. What does this tell us?

More important – Why do the citizenry of this city condone their enslavement? They may not see it as slavery at all, they may have another form of thought and being than we in the West. What might that be? To fall back on our clichéd Marxist or other critiques is ill-founded when dealing with the new… we need something else to understand what is going on in this posthuman cultural matrix. We need new mind-tools, new heuristical platforms of thought to interface and plug into such conceptuality.

Our pundits keep imposing the term “capitalism” on what is happening in the East as if they are appropriating and adapting to our systems. But are they? What if our pundits are wrong? What if what we’re seeing is something else? Could it be that our current set of critical tools are inoperable and ill-adapted to see what is in process? Maybe we are blinded by our own critical fictions, our ideological fabrications that have encased us in our own false bubbles and can no longer see beyond our own imposed conceptual limits?

Isn’t it time to break free of our social, political, economic, philosophical worlds? Are we ready to enter the posthuman age? Or do we fear what is already in process, and seek to close ourselves off in dying worlds of chaos and disorder? As the West crumbles under its inability to enter the next stage of existence we watch on as others surpass us and do what we are not willing to do for ourselves. We speak so glibly about progress and change, when in fact our postmodern pundits seek nothing more than an end to progress and change in a world closed off from the future. We’ve constructed our own prison of hopelessness out of a tissue of fear and lies. Time to change, break our chains to this false dystopia we’ve immersed ourselves in.


  1. Graham Allison;Robert D. Blackwill;Ali Wyne. Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (Kindle Locations 22-24). Kindle Edition.

10 thoughts on “Singapore: The Rational Society as Technocracy

    • Isn’t corruption, human? Obviously an open world, even one based on rationality is imperfect while humans continue to exist. There is no god, no external force or set of rules built into the human equation: essentialism went out a while back, and with it any sense of external norms and ethics. The only rule in the posthuman society: experimentalism to the optimal peak.

      Not saying I agree with it; just observing it, there is a difference. One cannot wish away what is in front of one’s face. One must deal with it as it is. To wish for something else is to turn away from the very object one is confronting, to blind oneself to its impact and become enamored in untested fictions rather than the hard kernel of reality.

      Singapore is doing something right, and whatever our moral or ethical dilemmas as to whether the ends justify the means is irrelevant in its success. While we belabor human rights and broken promises the world’s new City States are emerging like dragonflies on a sea of plenty. As most of European Union flounders in chaos and anarchy, bankrupt and decaying; while America struggles to renew its own fading dreams; the cities of the East, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore among others are surpassing our once fabled capitalist utopia, and doing it without democracy. What does this tell us?

      More important – Why do the citizenry of this city condone their enslavement? They may not see it as slavery at all, they may have another form of thought and being than we in the West. What might that be? To fall back on our clichéd Marxist or other critiques is ill-founded when dealing with the new… we need something else to understand what is going on in this posthuman cultural matrix. We need new mind-tools, new heuristical platforms of thought to interface and plug into such conceptuality.

      Like

    • As it happens, almost none of those buildings existed in 1993, when Gibson wrote the essay.

      Gibson said recently in the Paris Review that he didn’t think of the megalopolis in Neuromancer as a dystopia, and neither did his characters. He certainly brought the dystopian goggles along on his Singapore trip, though. It’s a brilliant essay which I’ve long loved, and it hits its target, but it reflects Gibson as much as Singapore.

      The charge of hypercapitalism is the usual misreading ; it is more pragmatic than that. 80% of people live in well built state housing projects, for instance.

      First Singapore general election without Lee Kuan Yew is in two weeks time.

      Like

    • rationality not rationalism… Singapore takes the rational as absolute and excludes the affective from its social system: ergo… why there is a police state mentality internalized. Call this a form of madness… one can deliberate on this forever but all our current ideological conceptuality is of little effect in knowing what this is… we drift in circles of our own conceptuality, not seeing into them as a different ethnographic ensemble or assemblage.

      Like

      • Morality and ethics has nothing to do with it right? Obviously as observed in the above, he didn’t give a crap for the “means justify the ends” arguments of ethicists. Life after death, right? A amoral universe beyond such legalisms. I don’t think there is any justification, legal or moral. He states that it’s only what “works” rather than it’s justification.

        I’m reminding of the decadents at this point who were pure rationalists: Gautier creates ritual and theology of the new religion of art. The passive person turned art work is invaded and possessed by the aggressive western eye. The eye has all rights, the object none. As in Sade, the dominant knower makes enormous hierarchic claims. Western seeing, I maintain, is innately fascistic and amoral.(from Paglia)…

        The Singapore world is that of the eye, innately fascistic and amoral. A world defined by realist and pragmatic business relations, while denying the physical and sexual affective forms in human relations. Yet, one wonders what escaped Gibson’s 1993 portrayal, what lurked in the unsaid, the hidden, the unrevealed sado-masochistic shadows of Singopoerean life?

        Like

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